For Chris Christie, Obama Connection Has Risks, Rewards
President Obama's second trip to New Jersey to meet with Republican Gov. Chris Christie post-Superstorm Sandy was accompanied Tuesday with a familiar flurry of speculation.
The first time, last fall, Christie's gracious welcome of the president raised questions about whether it might affect Obama's re-election just weeks later.
This time, the questions were inverted: How might Christie's own presidential aspirations be affected by his friendly proximity to the president?
How much does this hurt the governor with the Republican base — the voters who decide primaries?
Who gets the most out of the odd couple "bromance," as some have tagged the relationship?
To provide perspective on the Obama-Christie relationship, and why it continues to fascinate, we turned to New Jersey's own Bob Ingle.
He's senior political columnist and blogger for Gannett New Jersey newspapers, and author, with Michael Symons, of the 2012 book Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power, which will be released in updated form on June 11.
Why does there continue to be such an obsession — among the media and some conservatives — with Gov. Chris Christie's apparent apostasy in sharing a stage with the president of the United States?
"I don't understand it myself. Being a New Jersey resident, we were hit pretty hard by Sandy. It was looking bleak there for a while. The president said, 'I'll come. What do you need?' The governor told me that he and the president were riding in the car, and the president asked what the state needed, and then got on the phone, called Washington and relayed that information. Christie grew up in New Jersey. Why wouldn't you be very appreciative of the president doing everything he can to help you?"
Given your unique perch, how did you see Gov. Christie deliberately calibrating his relationship with both GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama during the final weeks of the 2012 campaign and in the wake of Sandy?
"I don't think there's a lot of calculation going on there. Gov. Christie is a loyal Republican, and Romney had reached out to him early on. There are people who may think that there was something more going on there with the president, than just the guy who came to help save us. The governor is an emotional man about some things, and one of them is the New Jersey Shore. I don't think there was any more to that than thanking the man who put the federal government at our disposal to get the shore up and ready for the summer season. We talked to him about that, and the governor said, 'There are two people who know who I'm going to vote for for president. One is me, and the other is the president of the United States.' There was never a time he stopped supporting Romney, and it was definitely to Romney's benefit to have Chris Christie on his team. No one knew the storm was coming. When it did, it unfolded as it would have if it had come in February."
Gov. Christie is riding a 67 percent approval rating in a state carried by President Obama by nearly 18 percentage points, and he is expected at this point to cruise to re-election this year. That would mean two more years with Obama in the White House, and another year — at best — before the presidential primary race really starts to take shape. How does Christie "recover" with the base from Sandy fallout?
"Here's what I think is going on right now: He is concentrating on winning re-election. I think he wants to do it with a landslide — to get the most votes ever for governor. He's also raising a lot of money. His campaign could go to these people who criticize him for having the audacity to touch the president on the shoulder — they did not hug — and say, 'Here is a governor who has won by the largest landslide ever in a state that is predominantly Democratic, and can take on the Democrats.' Polls out there say that the Republican who can mount a successful challenge to Hillary Clinton is Chris Christie. I think money people will understand that."
In 2009, there were headlines that said Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist was "haunted" by his embrace, literally, of Obama when the president came south to sell his economic stimulus plan. Do you see similarities with Christie and the president, similar long-term political peril — and why?
"There wasn't a hug; he tapped him on the shoulder. But it grew, and it grew. And now they'll make a big deal out of the governor winning a teddy bear for the president. But, down the line, faced with the reality of a Hillary Clinton presidency, maybe they say, we can just forget about that tap on the shoulder."
Do you think that part of the fascination with the Obama-Christie "Mutt and Jeff" pairing may be that they are so different, physically and temperamentally?
"There are a lot of people who don't see Christie every day like I do, and then just see him standing next to the skinny, tall president and maybe think that it doesn't look like [Christie] lost weight. Before he announced his [weight loss] surgery, Mike and I said it looked like the governor had lost a little weight. When confirmed, he said he's already lost 40 pounds. They do make a very interesting picture together."
You report in your updated book that their friendly relationship dates to a pre-storm visit Obama made to New Jersey.
"President Obama had come to Newark, and his staff told Christie that he should be the only one to greet Air Force One when it arrived. When the president got there, he asked the governor, 'Where are your kids?' He looked unhappy when Gov. Christie said he was told he was to be the only one. The president said that next time Christie was in town to do a Sunday show, [he should] bring the kids. President Obama gave them a personal tour of the White House. There was that friendly relationship before the storm. Christie is the kind of guy who is not going to dislike you just because you're a member of another party."
So, Tuesday's get-together in New Jersey — better for whom?
"The state has about $1 million worth of commercials running right now saying, 'We're stronger than the storm; the shore is back.' Having the president come and say the shore is open for business, come on back? That's worth way more than $1 million. Christie comes out better on this one than Obama. But the president, who is being hit on several sides by scandals? Having him come to New Jersey and do what a president should do, reassure the people that your government has your back, that's very important for his image. But on this one, I would give Christie the advantage."